THIS IS A RE-POST OF A REVIEW BY
MADELINE BOCARO FROM 2013
DAVID BOWIE IS – AGO Ontario
September 25 – November 27 2013
By Madeline Bocaro
Exclusive to PleaseKillMe.com
Now that some of you are enjoying the opening days of the Bowie Is exhibit in Chicago, here’s my take on seeing it in Toronto. This is a totally obsessive recap of everything that I can remember about the exhibit. We stayed for 5 hours.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would ever see the shroud of Turin with my own eyes! Well, actually it was not really a shroud. It was more like a spider-webbed body suit with one shiny gold sleeve and one shiny gold leg, and two oversized glittery gold mannequin hands wearing black nail polish clutching the chest area. And it was not actually from Turin, but from London, worn by David Bowie in 1973, singing ‘The Jean Genie’ on The Midnight Special during his 1980 Floor Show. (What ever happened to the censored third hand?!)
It stood next to my other favorite Floor Show Costume, the red vinyl, black/red sequined and feathered jumpsuit, Angel of Death. It was missing one feathered wristband and most importantly, the lace-up stiletto thigh high boots. But nonetheless, it was breathtaking! I envisioned Bowie smiling as the feathers grazed and tickled his face as he shimmied in this wacky creation on the show. This is only a smidgeon of the 300 artifacts (60 of them costumes), media and maelstrom created by Bowie and countless designers and artists in endless rooms on two floors.
I reveled in the absurdity of it all, recalling memories of family and peers scoffing at Bowie on TV, asking, ‘Who is this freak?’ and having no one to accompany me to Bowie concerts. Now his entire career has been elevated to high art – presented behind plexi-glass. And Bowie is now a ‘genius’. Young and old strolled through, taking notes, shuffling by in varying degrees of human decay – with walkers, in wheelchairs, lots of old folks looking confused, some humoring the Bowie fans they’d accompanied. I wondered what each person was thinking. All I know is that nobody was laughing. My god – if this is not hilarious, what is?!
Really – Iggy’s masterpiece of depressing droning noise, The Idiot album cover hanging in a museum over a plaque! Gotta love it! People gazing at Velvet Underground acetate, bearing a single label with the name ‘Warhol’ scribbled on it. The late Guy Peellaert’s amazing original Diamond Dogs cover artwork is now revered, whereas people recoiled, disgusted at Bowie As Dog when it came out! Bowie’s gorgeous 1976 mug shot is on display, as is his coke spoon (kept in his pocket during the Diamond Dogs tour) with its own descriptive plaque!!! I burst out laughing! Nobody else cracked a smile!
The first object on view is the iconic Tokyo Pop, the snap-off break-away sculptural monochrome vinyl jumpsuit with bright red lining by Kansai. It was shown with the famous red patent leather platform boots, now scuffed and worn. I gazed upon this, quivering for at least 30 minutes. Like all of the other costumes, it is tiny. Bowie had a 26-½ inch waist. I had seen Tokyo Pop at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Rock Style exhibit in 1999/2000. The leather was cracked, but here, it looked perfect. Quite possibly a reproduction.
A large room illustrates Bowie’s childhood and career, starting as a mod, through the 1960s. His vintage white Grafton alto sax is the same acrylic model that Charlie Parker played. There is also David’s acoustic guitar and his Little Richard promo photo from the 1950s.
A floor-to-ceiling mirrored Starman room shows the Top of the Pops performance on floor-to-ceiling video, reflecting everywhere, behind Bowie’s quilted rainbow colored suit with red boots & green laces. The only thing that pried me away from it was anticipating what else was in store.
Unlike the V&A exhibit, there was an Andy Warhol room. The video of Bowie and Warhol’s awkward first meeting shows his disembowelment mime. A double Elvis was a nice treat, a Chelsea Girls poster and a video portrait of Edie Sedgwick. Also a tribute to Gilbert & George. Separately there was a blue and orange Marilyn with silver foil.
Otherwise, there was no mention by name of the Warhol gang, who became the Bowie’s MainMan management staff, except for a Pork program with a vague mention of the cast. But I will mention them; Leee (RIP), Cherry, Jayne and Zee! Love to all of you.
Also ignored was Angela Bowie and her immense contributions to the creation of Ziggy Stardust. Mick Ronson appeared in some photos an videos, but there was nothing substantial about the guitarist and master behind the musical arrangements of several key Bowie albums. I didn’t see any mention of Tamasaburo, the onnagata who taught Bowie the art of Kabuki makeup. And strangely absent were the dresses by Mr. Fish. Also absent were Vince Taylor and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, whose personae made up the Ziggy Stardust character – though I may have missed something, as the show was not in chronological order, and was quite disjointed.
A Space Oddity room housed moon-landing memorabilia with the original 1960s Bowie video, and also the 1970s Mick Rock produced promo playing. Nice to see the original Varsarely Op Art painting (curated by Calvin Lee) that Bowie’s face appeared in the midst of on the first edition of the Space Oddity album cover. It was amazing to see George Underwood’s original illustration with Bowie’s reference sketch.
There is a sensory overload upstairs in the main room – very chaotic with unnecessary multimedia overkill. Annoying mash-ups of Bowie songs were constantly playing too loudly while we were also wearing narrative headsets and trying to read info on the plaques. It was all too much. I finally just tuned it all out.
Well, here are of all my favorite things…
The London Boys / Liza Jane sheet music / Score for The Laughing Gnome / Oh You Pretty Things / Life On Mars? (completely different lyrics) / Starman / Five Years / Rock N’ Roll Suicide / Rebel Rebel / Fascination / Right (the difficult section) / Heroes …and more!
It was cool to see Bowie’s (reproductions) Kirlian photography slides again! There were a couple of Richard Hamilton posters representing swinging London, A Clockwork Orange poster and an Eric Heckel woodcut. A set of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, and a die cut Aladdin Sane print.
There was a very cool 1966 letter to Ken Pitt from Ralph Horton confirming David’s name change from Jones to Bowie. A double bill poster – The Hype with Tyrannosaurus Rex was on display.
Kansai’s Woodland Creatures short soft leather leotard painted with winged white rabbits from the Ziggy Stardust tour (a reproduction??) The leather was cracked on this one when I saw it at the Met.
The opulent white satin cape by Kansai with red and black velvet kanji (‘Da Vi Do Bo Wi) and red lining was displayed high above with open books suspended around it. It looks much heaver and more exquisite than in pictures.
Sequined black jeans and pink/black glittery shirt from Ziggy’s Hammersmith Odeon farewell gig looked too new to be originals. The feather necklace was placed on this outfit.
The gorgeous Freddie Burretti (Freddy Burrett) ice blue synthetic textile Life On Mars suit was complete with black & white striped shirt and silver/turquoise dotted tie with red stripe, and the shoes! The mannequin was wearing the silver Peruvian wedding bands (bangle bracelets) – but on the wrong wrist! I spent a very long time with this one, with the video showing right beside it! Handwritten lyrics to the song were completely different than what we know them to be. This suit was not lit to the best effect to show its iridescence. The long jacket is lightweight, and streamlined with wide lapels. The trousers have large cuffs in the front only. This suit was a popular silhouette for women’s trouser suits from Yves St. Laurent at that time. Burretti’s design/measurement notebook was amazing to see. (A film is now in the works about him!)
A nice surprise to see the Size 13 yellow, red and green palm tree wedges, from Pelican Footwear, New York! It is not mentioned that Bette Midler urged Bowie to buy the wedge platform shoes with tropical motif, but she was too late – Cyrinda Foxe had previously taken him to the same shop and he already had bought them. Bette told Bowie, ‘With those shoes, and that chicken on your head (referring to his red Ziggy hair) you’ll take Manhattan by storm!’
Also from Pelican, size 13 lavender wedge platform shoes (deliberately mis-matched pair – black and pink satin, one open-toed clog and one sandal with ankle straps) worn with the keyhole leotard (missing from the exhibit) during the 1980 Floor Show.
Also missing from the 1980 Floor Show was Burretti’s asymmetrical ‘Time’ jumpsuit, which was sold in April, 2007 via Christies in London for 10,800 pounds ($21,500) to the Hard Rock Cafe. (Blue ground with silver nylon thread weave appliqued on the body and leg with a flame design in orange, red, yellow, gold and pink). The costume was discovered by chance by a New York stylist, who scoured costume shops and flea markets.
The Black and White Years section featured Ola Hudson’s 1940s cut black & white Station To Station tour suit and the Thomas Jerome Newton MWFTE suit with black platform shoes and beige wide-brimmed hat.
Ola Hudson’s 1976 Grammys suit was incorrectly labeled as Burretti. The classic black brimmed hat is a stunner. Natasha Korniloff’s naval outfit and sailor hat from the Stage tour. Low, Heroes and Lodger albums were hung in a group.
The long skeleton keys to Bowie’s Berlin apartment hung next to a postcard from Christopher Isherwood.
It was a real treat to see Bowie’s Head of Mishima painting IN BRIGHT COLOR! Astounded to find that it has ‘Mona Lisa eyes’ that follow you around the room!!! Another painting of Berlin landscape with Iggy in foreground, and a Heroes self portrait print 38/509. Bowie’s blue and gray portrait of Iggy (Head of James Osterberg) comes to life.. And there’s Bowie’s cartoonish sketch of a woman on a Gitanes cigarette pack.
After scrapping a giant choreographed puppet idea, we see Bowie’s lighting notes for Station to Station tour. ‘Spot on B for ‘Wham bam’.
Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS from 1974 used on Low, Heroes and Lodger was stunning to behold!!! It was gifted from Eno to Bowie in 1999. ‘Look after it. It can still make noises that nothing else can make.’ There are 36 knobs under the categories; Oscillator 1,2,3, Frequency shape level knobs, Noise Generator, Output Filter, Envelope Shaper, Attack Decay Trapezoid, Reverberation.
The small Koto used on ‘Moss Garden’ with small bits of satin on its edges was in the same display cube as the Synthi.
Very interesting ‘Young Americans’ movie notes; Major Tom watching English news of his sendoff, taken off in a patrol truck straight to base (just like Thomas Jerome Newton in TMWFTE) to meet three other astronauts.
The Saturday Night Live costumes were displayed next to the video, with nice mentions of Joey Arias and dear Klaus Nomi. There was a sketch by David describing what became the hard plastic sculptured tuxedo with barrel bottom to the designer at Brooks Van Horn …‘Access into and out of to be easy. Back door (crossed out) gate? Sleeves real material, tramp-like.’ This costume was displayed next to inspirational sketches by Sonia Delauney (the Dadaist German Cabaret Voltaire movement’s designer, who created many of Tristan Tzara’s outfits in the 1920s.) This costume, in turn inspired Klaus Nomi’s iconic angular vinyl tuxedo.
I could have lived without seeing Bowie’s Elephant Man diaper. Wish I’d never seen it actually! It was alongside Jareth’s Labyrinth crystal ball and scepter.
The super dark room with giant floor-to-ceiling video walls was the worst! The videos totally obscured some very important Aladdin Sane tour costumes. The spectacular silver with black trim Spring Rain – short leotard with gold beaded fringe (the rain) shimmered gorgeously but was obscured behind a black mesh screen on which videos were projected.
Also in that horribly dark room (at least this one wasn’t behind the video screen) was Kansai’s asymmetric cat suit with gold threads (1973). The one-legged off the shoulder knit suit, (not the turtleneck with separate leggings.) Striped with internationally flavored patterns – Nordic, Aztec and a Roman scroll pattern. Complete with thick foam glittered bracelets and anklettes.
The 100 foot high video/film wall had sections that resembling a dark Ikea warehouse. Some significant costumes were practically invisible behind the black mesh, up on tiers 2 and 3 – and especially when inane video footage of the Glass Spider tour or Live Aid were projected upon them. It was sacrilegious!!! If there had not been plaques indicating that they were there somewhere, I would have never noticed these important costumes; Pink, green and gold ‘Space Oddity’ striped suit (the collar was turned down so that the bright inside was not visible). Another fantastic Kansai creation – Space Samurai – the red, blue and black shiny metallic breakaway cape was obliterated behind mesh. The white Burretti suit from the 1980 Floor Show (‘Sorrow’) displayed with arms crossed, hiding the gorgeous pointed sleeve cuffs. And the white silk embroidered kimono jacket and pants.
I could not believe it when the guard told me that they NEVER turn on the lights in that room. I asked him if they turn them on at closing to make sure everyone is out – I would wait until then. He said no. I asked what happens at the last hour of the exhibit, when they are striking the whole thing down, would they turn on the lights then? I would set up a mattress in the corner and wait a month. He said no. It’s meant to be seen this way. This is the sickest and most frustrating thing I’ve ever heard. Apparently, this room was presented in the same way at London’s V&A exhibit.
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Burretti’s Diamond Dogs suits (sans shoulder pads) were in this room as well as pieces of the Diamond Dogs stage set, also hidden behind the black mesh screen. It was like viewing the exhibit with glaucoma! There was a cool telefax from Elvis & the Colonel wishing David well on the Diamond Dogs tour.
A 30-minute film reel featured performance clips of ‘Heroes’, Live Aid with Tina Turner, Glass Spider tour footage, the recently found ‘The Jean Genie’ Top Of the Pops appearance, and one song from the farewell gig. There were no rare or unseen videos or films at all.
By itself and out of place stood Bowie’s blue/gray Saturday Night Live skirt and jacket, and the stuffed pink poodle with video screen in its mouth. It triggered the amazing memory of me being at that performance and having seen the outfit before ON Bowie as he walked right past me. But the ugly gray suede sling-back shoes were missing.
The Scary Monsters Pierrot clown costume by Natasha is exquisite with pearls and rhinestone flowers. The plaque read, ‘Music is the Pierrot, it is not to be taken seriously or questioned.’ Everyone stared at it – seriously!
The Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat was really cool to see. There were many more suits; the ‘Blue Jean’ ensemble, DJ jumpsuit, Culottes by Issey Miyake worn in the photo shoot with Lulu and in The Man Who Fell To Earth, brown Pin Ups suit (by Derek Morton for Tommy Roberts’ City Lights boutique, which influenced the design of future Burretti suits for David) with the shiny shocking blue boots. Freddie’s handwritten style and measurements book was very interesting.
The Ziggy Stardust circuit patterned suit was a re-creation of the one designed by Freddie Burretti and made by Sue Frost. (The dozen or so that were made in the 70s had been torn by fans.) It lay in a glass-topped coffin, displayed with the white lace-up Droog boots by Russell & Bromley. The caption read ‘Made from 1930s furniture fabric.’ My boyfriend lovingly and sarcastically told me that he is going to have a suit made from his grandma’s couch! ‘It’ll be the next big thing! It will be culottes!’ This is why I adore him!!!
It was amazing to be in a city (Toronto) where there are Aladdin Sane (eyes open) posters on every corner, and huge ones on buildings, buses and throughout the exhibit. I never imagined this day would come in my wildest dreams. Who knows what might happen if I stay alive for another fifty years! My boyfriend said that if I live for one more year, I will see his couch suit!
As Bowie sits back and relaxes, his career is still on tour! After London’s V&A, it travelled to Toronto, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and now it’s in Chicago through January 2015.
• Philharmonie de Paris/ Cité de la Musique, Paris, France – 2 March to 31 May 2015
• Groninger Museum, Groningen, The Netherlands 15 December 2015 to 15 March 2016
For more about the inaccuracies of this exhibit, see this web site:
DAVID BOWIE IS MISTAKEN, (written by people who are even more obsessive than myself!)